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Penda's Fen (1974)


Warning: screenonline full synopses contain 'spoilers' which give away key plot points. Don't read on if you don't want to know the ending!

Rural Worcestershire. 17-year-old pastor's son Stephen Franklin sits in his room writing about Elgar's 'The Dream of Gerontius' in an exercise book. The following morning, Stephen plays the organ at his school assembly and takes part in a debate in which he condemns a TV program that questioned the gospels' account of Jesus' life. He goes on to champion the role of family in Christian England.

That evening, he attends a debate at the church hall, chaired by his father. One of the panellists, a writer named Mr Arne, defends striking workers and questions the top-secret government development in the nearby countryside. Back home, Stephen tells his parents how unpleasant he found Arne's views. Later, a group of young revellers stop their car near the village. One of the group gets out, returning moments later hideously burned. The following morning, police and soldiers surround the man's hospital bed.

At school, Stephen tells his class of a dream he had about a demon sitting in the roof of his father's church. One of his classmates says Stephen does nothing for their house and should be boiled in oil. Later, at Arne's house, Reverend Franklin shows Arne the local paper's account of the burned youth. It claims that he was burned by a weather balloon. Arne doesn't believe it. On the way home, Stephen and his father discuss the Manichean belief that Jesus was just one of the sons of light in the eternal battle between good and evil. That night, Stephen dreams about an angel, the naked body of a classmate and of a demon sitting on his bed. The next morning, Stephen doesn't attend his school's military marching class and, on the way home, sees the reflection of an angel in the stream.

The following day, Stephen is ticked-off by his teacher for not attending marching class. Cycling home, Stephen has a vision of the demon from his dream and falls off his bicycle. While unconscious, he dreams of a bizarre ritual in which people have their hands chopped off. Later at home, Stephen finds a manuscript that casts doubt on the orthodox teaching of Christianity, written by his father. Sheltering from the rain in a derelict bunker, Stephen meets Edward Elgar who tells him the secret of his 'Enigma Variations', then disappears.

On his 18th birthday, Stephen's parents tell him that he is adopted. Stephen visits Mrs Arne and tells her he is sorry that she cannot conceive children. He also tells her that he is adopted. He asks Mrs Arne if homosexuals can have children. She says they can make good parents. At school, Stephen's classmates pin him down and tie a pink ribbon in his hair. Later, Stephen and his father discuss pre-Christian religion. Mr Franklin claims that Jesus was a revolutionary, who has been reduced to the property of organised religion. They go on to discuss King Penda, the ancient Pagan king, and Stephen asks if this is the spot where he died. His father says he might not be dead. Later, Stephen plays the church organ and sees deep cracks appearing in the church floor. He hears a voice asking Stephen to free him. After the voice stops, the cracks disappear.

Sitting on top of a hill, Stephen is approached by a couple. They tell him he is the chosen one with the power of the gods. Stephen says he can't be as he is mixed racially, religiously and sexually. He runs away. The man takes an instant photo of Stephen and burns it. As the photo burns, so do Stephen's legs. He calls to Penda for help. Penda appears and the couple flees. Penda tells Stephen that his kind have been banished, but Stephen has been chosen to cherish the flame of the fen until he is able to return. Penda disappears and Stephen walks down the hill.